A Game of Chess is the second section of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. It explores the failure of sex relationships in the modern waste land. Sex has become a mere source of pleasure and has lost its spiritual significance. As a result, family life in both high and low society has reached a stalemate, and life has become a round of dull routine.
The poet begins by describing the bedroom and dressing table of a rich and fashionable lady, belonging to the highest sections of society. She sat in a chair which shone brightly like a throne studded with jewels. In its bright light her marble dressing table also “glowed’ or shone brightly. Her looking- glass was held up by wooden pillars on which were carved vine creepers with grapes, from which small cupid, the love-god, peeped out (and another cupid was shown as hiding his eyes behind his wings). Her looking-glass and glowing table reflected back the bright light falling on them from a branched candle-stand holding seven candles, and in this way the brightness of the light was doubled. Jewels taken out of satin cases were scattered on the table in rich abundance. They glittered in the bright light, and their glitter further intensified the brightness of the light falling upon them from above.
There were also small bottles made of ivory or coloured glass. They were full of artificial scents purchased from foreign, unknown countries. Some of these were in the form of liquids or powders. As the bottles were opened, rich perfumes came out and overwhelmed the senses with their strong odour and troubled and confused those who inhaled such strong odors. These synthetic, artificial odours were carried up to the ceiling by the fresh air that came through the window. The fresh air loaded with these perfumes reached the ceiling and fretted the light of the candles, so that the smoke of the candles reached the well decorated ceiling of the room. The ceiling was decorated with sunken panels, and these decorative patterns were now fretted by air and smoke.
In the fire-place there burnt huge logs of sea-wood which were pushed into the fire-place by rods of copper. The fire acquired a greenish orange colour, because the fire-place was framed by coloured stones. The figure of a dolphine was also carved on the fire-place, and it seemed to be swimming in this coloured light. On the old mantle-piece there was carved a scene through which one could see, as it were, a wood or a garden. The scene depicted the story of Philomela who was raped by the barbarous King Tarus, her own brother-in-law but was later on transformed into a nightingale, the bird with a golden throat. She was raped by the use of force, but was transformed into the bird with a golden throat, and since then deserts and forests have echoed with her sweet song. Maidens are still raped as Philomela was raped, but while in the past, as a result of suffering, she was transformed into the bird with golden throat, no such transformation is possible in the modern age. Nightingales still sing out their painful story, but it is mere senseless *Jug, Jug” to the dirty ears of the modern waste landers. They fail to understand the real significance of the nightingale’s song. Women are still raped, they are still pursued and force is still used against them, but in the past, there was transformation through suffering.
Some other figures were also carved on the mantle-piece, which seemed to lean out as if trying to listen to some sound in that closed and silent room. Soon there was heard the shuffling sound of the foot-steps of someone climbing up the stairs. The lady knew that it was her lover, and she was emotionally excited. Her Excitement was so great that her hair which she was combing and which was spread out in the dazzling light of the room, seemed to have *fiery points’ and they glowed as if they would speak out. But they remained still in a sinister, savage manner (but still they conveyed the intensity of the lady’s excitement).
After sometime (in which the lady and her lover must have indulged in sex), the lady said to her lover that her nerves were bad that night. Yes they were very bad, and she wanted him to stay with her that night and speak to her. She asked him why did he never speak to her. He must speak to her. Next, she asked him what he was thinking of when the lover still remained silent, she repeated her question, “what are you thinking of?” and told him rather impatiently, “I never know what you are thinking” “You always keep thinking and never talk to me. The lover merely replied that he was thinking that they lived in a lane infested with rats, so many that they could eat away even the bones of a dead man.
At this point there is some sound or noise and the nervous, frightened lady asked what that noise was. The lover replied that it was the wind under the door. The noise was heard again, and the lady asked as to what the wind was doing there (under the door) The lover merely replied that it was nothing, that it meant nothing. The nervous lady then impatiently asked, if he knew nothing, if he saw nothing, and did he remember nothing. The lover replied that he remembered a line from Shakespeare The Tempest: “those are pearls that were his eyes.’ ” At this the lady angrily asked him if he were alive or not, and was there nothing in his head except that meaningless line of Shakespeare. The lover replied that the line he remembered was so elegant and so intelligent. (It was not mere meaningless nonsense). The lady was entirely dissatisfied as is evident from her repeated question, “What shall I do now? What shall I do?” If he did not talk to her, she would rush out into the street, half-dressed as she was, and would walk the street with her hair stretched out. Then she asked what they would do to-morrow. She did not know what they would ever do. The lover simply reminded her of the daily routine of their lives. They would have a hot bath at ten, and if it rained they would go out at four in a closed car. They will play a game of chess as usual and wait eagerly with wide open eyes for a knock upon the door (indicating the arrival of some guest or some lover of the lady).
Next the poet (or Tiresias) narrates another episode, this time from middle class life. The speaker is a friend of Lil, and she is talking to some friends seated in a restaurant. When after the war Lil’s husband was retrenched, she herself told Lil frankly and clearly without mincing any words – at this point a voice is heard asking them to hurry up, for it was time to close the restaurant – that as her husband Albert was now coming back home, she should try to make herself a bit more smart. He would certainly ask her what she did with the money he gave her to get a nice set of teeth for herself. He swore that he could not bear to look at her, and she (the friend of Lil) told her that she herself also could not bear to look at her (her teeth made her look so repulsive). She should think of poor Albert. He has been in the army for four years, and now on his return home, he wants to have a good time and enjoy himself. If he could not get that enjoyment in the company of Lil, there are others who will give him that enjoyment. Lil asked angrily if there were others who would give him a good time and the friend (the narrator of the episode) replied that there were certainly such other women. Lil replied that in that case she would know whom to thank for it (She meant in that case she would know that her friend was the person concerned) and then looked angrily at her friend. At this point there is again a call to them to hurry up, for it was the time to close the restaurant.
But they continued to talk without heeding the call. Lil’s friend frankly told Lil that if she did not like her advice and did not care to make herself more smart, then she was free to do what she liked. There were other women who could pick and choose and if any one of them eloped with him, then she must not complain that she was not warned at the right time (she, her friend, has herself warned her). She should be ashamed of herself to look so old (while, in reality she was so young, only thirty-one years of age). Lil replied with a sad face that she could not help it. She took certain pills to bring about an abortion, and the pills damaged her health. They already had five children, and she nearly died when her sixth child George was born. The chemist had told her that it would be all right but she has never been the same, after taking the pills. Lil’s friend told her that she was a great fool, and if Albert does not leave her alone (i.e. has sexual intercourse with her), then she must bear the consequences. Why did they marry, if they did not want children?
There is again the call asking them to hurry, for it was time for the restaurant to be closed up, but they continue to talk. The friend of Lil further tells them that on that Sunday Albert returned home. They had a hot pig for dinner, and they invited her to enjoy it hot.
Now the call to hurry up is impatiently repeated twice, and they have to put an end to their conversation. They bid good night or say “ta ta”. to each other, and then leave in a hurry.